Sino-Iranian relations have often been described with the cliché of “2,000 years of friendship, cooperation, and trade” by statesmen of both countries. In his latest speech on October 17, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, urged Iranians to “look eastward” where countries “are moving in the direction of growth” rather than the United States and Europe. However, this relationship often has been influenced by considerations of third parties — once the Soviet Union and the United States, and later the U.S. alone.
Iran initiated diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1971, only after the United States broke the ice with Beijing. Like Washington, Tehran’s motive was partly to have leverage against the Soviet Union. Later on, in 1972, Iranian Empress Farah and Prime Minister Amir-Abbas Hoveyda visited Beijing as a gesture of goodwill. The relationship reached its climax when Hua Guofeng, then-China’s premier and chairman of the Communist Party of China, visited Tehran in August 1978 — only months before the outbreak of the Islamic revolution in Iran. This visit was received warmly by the Shah, who paid homage to his guest’s loyalty by stating, “Mr. Hua Guofeng visited me, at a time when the Iranian crisis was reaching its peak, I had the impression that the Chinese alone were in favor of a strong Iran.”
Charming though it was for the falling Shah, this ill-timed visit was perceived negatively by the new revolutionary regime, whose founder Ayatollah Khomeini labeled China as “imperialist,” on par with the United States and the Soviet Union. The stain of the visit was cleared only when China claimed that the trip was a refueling stop for Hua’s Boeing 707 en route to Romania and Yugoslavia.
After the Iranian revolution in 1979, the rhetoric around the bilateral relationship changed to a more leftist slogan of Third-Worldism and countering the hegemony of superpowers (the Soviet Union and the United States). However, it has remained highly ironic that almost at the same time as the Iranian masses started a revolution to establish the rule of God on earth by toppling down the monarchy of the pro-West Shah, the Chinese post-Mao leadership started de-revolutionizing its rhetoric, opening its gate to Western investment and embracing a capitalist economic vision. This discrepancy was best described in 1985 by Rafsanjani, then the Iranian speaker of the Parliament and the second most powerful politician after Khomeini, in his visit to China: “The Western culture has dominated China and the new steps by the leadership of Deng Xiaoping has given considerable economic and cultural freedom to people. They are moving towards capitalism. China’s gates are open for the foreign and domestic investments. Signs of Western cultural invasion could be seen in China.”
During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), relations were determined mostly by Tehran’s critical need for ammunition and Beijing’s need for cash. Though China adopted the policy of neutrality regarding the war, it exported huge amount of armaments to Iran — in 1987, 70 percent of Iranian arms were imported from China. Iran highly valued China’s weapons sales, especially since Beijing was under pressure from the United States to stop arms exports to Iran. Despite this optimism from Iranians, China at the same time was selling considerable amounts of military equipment to Iraq as well. Beijing also suspended its sales of sensitive military technologies to Iran when it realized that it might jeopardize its ties with the United States.
As a rule, relations between Iran and China have been constrained by two factors from China’s perspective. Beijing sees “the Iran card” as an invaluable leverage in its negotiations with the United States over various issues and based on this factor has adjusted its proximity or distance from Tehran. In addition, Iran is a reliable supplier of China’s increasing need for crude oil, and would offer better prices and even barter oil away while under U.S. sanctions.
This secondary status of Iran in China’s foreign policy, along with the latter’s opportunistic approach to Iran’s economic plights — at least as was seen in Tehran — had its effects on Tehran’s foreign policy circles. In Iran, China is seen more as a redundant option for times of crisis; Beijing can provide a breathing lifeline for Iran, especially when it is heavily under the pressure of the sanctions. Thus, the perception in Tehran has been a lingering doubt about the reliability of too heavy dependence on China in the long run.
Tehran’s lack of genuine willingness to expand strategic relations with Beijing, beyond the inevitability of the current situation, has not remained unnoticed in China. In a recent conversation with a Chinese diplomat, the former senior Iranian diplomat Seyed Hossein Mousavian expressed that “Beijing does not know if Iran’s relation with China is a function of its conflict with the West or [a genuine interest in China].” This question is even more relevant now that pro-West reformists and centrists such as Rouhani control the government.
China’s more assertive stance in varying global issues, including its reaction to the U.S. military presence close to its borders in the South China Sea and Taiwan, and its recent trade war with the United States provide opportunities for a more independent stand vis-à-vis Iran, unconstrained by U.S. interferences. A case in point is the Beijing’s consonance with Iran and Russia about the developments in Syria, where up to 5,000 Uyghur fighters are involved in the war. The return of those fighters could pose a grave security risk for China.
Added to this, Trump’s scrapping of the Iran nuclear deal led to the reimplementation of the U.S. embargo on Iran’s oil exports on November 5. European countries are attempting to save the deal through the so-called Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV). Given that China is the biggest customer of Iran’s oil, no attempt to save the deal will be successful without its cooperation. This is a mutual dependence as China also needs to secure Iran as a reliable energy partner with its ever-increasing thirst for oil.
China has been granted a six-month waiver on the sanctions, allowing it to avoid choosing sides for now. It is only a matter of time to see if China will use the sanctions as an opportunity to elevate its relationship with Iran to a strategic level, or whether it will sacrifice Tehran yet again — this time as a card to be played in its tariff war with Trump administration.
Mahmoud Pargoo is an expert on the politics, culture, and religion of post-revolutionary Iran. Currently, he is a Ph.D. scholar at the Australian Catholic University in Sydney. His writings have been published in the Washington-based Al-Monitor and Lobelog.